How to do Hilton Head Island like a local
An insider's guide to Lowcountry living
Whether you are visiting Hilton Head for the first time or moving to this special part of the Lowcountry, this is the blog for you.
Planning a vacation can be stressful. There’s a lot to think about! And you want the time to go as smoothly as possible. Also, isn’t the whole idea of a vacation supposed to be making time to relax?
Here’s your quick guide to a stress-free vacation on Hilton Head Island:
Avoid traffic jams
If you haven’t been here before, then you probably wouldn’t guess that rush hour is a reality even in in our Lowcountry paradise! Traffic on the island isn't a challenge, but when it comes to the traffic on the only bridge that connects the island to the mainland — it’s a different story.
Peak traffic for the bridge is Saturday afternoon into evening — when most people are checking in/out of their hotels and vacation rentals. Usually, it peaks around 6 p.m., according to The Island Packet. If you’re one of those vacationers who’s checking in on a Saturday, try to get to the island early if possible.
Annual vacationers have it down to a science: They make it to the island in the morning, get their groceries/beach rentals first thing, and spend a little time at the beach until it’s check-in time. (With that said, grocery stores can also get pretty crowded on a Saturday afternoon/evening, so if you can’t make it early — go Saturday after dinner or early Sunday morning!)
If you’re able to plan your vacation to arrive/depart on days other than Saturday, you might just avoid the traffic. In general, the bridge is typically most crowded between 8-10 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. — similar to typical city rush hours. Accidents can cause major delays on the bridge any time of day, so it’s a good idea to plan on traffic just in case. (Pack snacks and toys for the little ones!) The good news? Rain or shine, the view from that bridge you might get stuck on is gorgeous.
Have a parking plan — and bring quarters!
Parking is free at Coligny Beach Park — but it’s also the most popular spot on the island, and the parking lot tends to fill up. And while it might be tempting, parking at the local shops and restaurants to go to the beach can land you with a hefty parking ticket.
There are several other public beach access points on the island, most of which have metered parking. Make sure you bring quarters in case you end up having to use a meter! A full list of public beach access points and parking can be found here.
If you want to avoid beach parking altogether, The Breeze Trolley is free throughout 2021, and includes various pick-up/drop-off locations across the island. (And if you’re staying at Sea Pines, they have their own Sea Pines Trolley as well!)
Pack sunscreen — and bug spray!
Sunscreen is a given for a beach day — but bug spray might not be on the top of your list. The Lowcountry is famous for its sand gnats (or, as locals call them, “no-see-ums"). Most of the local shops sell no-see-um specific bug repellent — and there are even sunscreens with built-in bug repellent (like this Avon Skin So Soft Moisturizer + Bug Spray + SPF 30). It’s always a good idea to use some sort of bug spray if you’re dining outdoors, too, especially in the morning or evening.
Rent a beach wagon/cart — or all of your beach gear
If you’ve got a ton of beach gear, it’s probably worth the $20-$30 to rent a beach cart to haul all of your goodies — or just buy one if you drove to the island and are able to take it with you.
There are a few different places where you can rent beach gear on the island, including Vacation Comfort Rentals, Hilton Head Bike Rentals and Shore Beach Services (which will even set up your gear for you!)
Rental bikes are a genius idea
Speaking of rentals, renting a bike is also a genius idea! The island is known for its bike paths, and it’s a great way to explore Hilton Head without worrying about traffic or parking. You could also rent a beach cruiser and explore the island’s beaches in style.
Plan meals early/late to avoid the crowds
Some of the island's best restaurants don’t take reservations, so if you don’t want to wait try grabbing meals early/late to avoid the crowds. (Think 4 p.m. for dinner, 11 a.m. for lunch).
Know the beach rules
Hilton Head Island has different beach rules during peak season than the rest of the year. For example, if you’re planning to bring your dog to the beach, they’re only allowed before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. during the summer months. Alcohol also isn’t allowed on Hilton Head beaches (so check out a beach bar instead!) and neither are bonfires or fireworks. You can learn all of the rules here.
May-October is also sea turtle season, which has its own set of rules, including:
Fill in holes and knock down sandcastles before leaving the beach
No lights on the beach at night (unless they’re red filtered)
No large shovels on the beach
Remove all beach gear each evening
Don’t disturb sea turtles or their nests
You can learn more about sea turtles and how to protect them here.
Check the tide charts
If you’re planning on kayaking or doing any watersports on the island, you’ve probably already been told to check the tide charts. But did you know it’s still helpful to know the tides just for walks on the beach?
The folly at Folly Field Beach can be impassable at high tide — meaning, if you cross it while the tide is low and have to get to the other side to get back to your car or vacation rental, you might be stuck for a while unless you want to swim.
And if you like to explore tide pools, knowing when low tide is can be super helpful — and allow you to discover all of the sea creatures. (Just remember: Don’t disturb ANYTHING that’s alive on Hilton Head. That includes sand dollars, which are living creatures when they’re brown and their little spines are moving. The white “shell” they leave behind is just the exoskeleton, which bleaches in the sun. This quick video can show you the difference. You can receive heavy fines for messing with the island’s wildlife).
Make a rain plan
The last thing to know when planning a Hilton Head vacation? Make a rain plan.
The island’s weather is lovely most of the time, but there is the occasional rainy day. (Most of the summer storms are VERY short-lived on the island — as in, here for 20 minutes and then back to clear skies). When the rain does stick around:
Check out the island’s shops — including Coligny Plaza, Shelter Cove, Sea Pines Shops. If you want to drive a little further, you can check out Tanger Outlets in Bluffton, or even use the rainy day to explore a bit of Savannah.
Visit the Discovery Museum.
For the adults: Check out Hilton Head Brewing Co., Hilton Head Distillery or Island Winery.
Head to The Sandbox Interactive Children’s Museum.
Plan a spa day.
Head to one of the island’s waterfront restaurants for a meal with a view — that’s out of the rain.
Go play in the arcade at Adventure Cove — and then play a round of mini golf when the rain clears.